Hundreds of years after the first person was executed in the American colonies for witchcraft, Connecticut lawmakers are considering exonerating the accused.
The executions of these accused witches in Connecticut came decades before the infamous Salem witch trials.
Alse Young was killed at the gallows in Connecticut on May 26, 1647. She was the first of nine women and two men executed by the colony of Connecticut for witchcraft over 15 years. More than 40 people went on trial on accusations they had ties to Satan.
Amateur historians, researchers and descendants of the accused witches and their accusers are now pushing Connecticut lawmakers to finally offer posthumous exoneration.
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And while the exoneration demands are nothing new, the calls have become louder as many genealogy buffs find that their distant relatives were involved in the Connecticut witch trials.
“They’re talking about how this has followed their families from generation to generation and that they would love for someone just to say, ‘Hey, this was wrong,'” Connecticut state Rep. Jane Garibay said.
Garibay proposed an exoneration resolution after receiving letters from eighth and ninth-generation relatives of accused witches.
Connecticut’s witch trials were carried out in the mid-to-late 1600s. At the time, witchcraft was considered a capital offense in each of the New England colonies.
The earliest laws in the colony of Connecticut stated that “any man or women (to) be a Witch, that is, hath or consulteth with a familiar spirit, they shall bee put to death.”
Many historians say that fear and anxiety among religiously strict English settlers prompted the witch trials. They pointed out that life was very difficult during this period, given epidemics, floods, cold winters and starvation. Allegations of witchcraft often began because of an argument, the death of a child or a cow, or because of butter that could not be churned.
Many of the people accused witches who were executed were poor, single mothers, including Mary Johnson, a servant in Wethersfield, Connecticut, who faced allegations of “familiarity with the Devil.”
Johnson was tortured for years by a local minister who whipped her until she finally admitted to being a witch and to “uncleanness with men.” She was allegedly hanged after giving birth to the child of a man she was not married to.
“It’s important to right the wrongs of the past, so we learn from them and move on and not repeat those mistakes,” said podcast host Joshua Hutchinson, who traced his ancestry to accused witches in Salem.
Hutchinson said people have been killed in recent decades in multiple countries because they were believed to be witches or sorcerers.
Connecticut state Sen. Saud Anwar also proposed an exoneration bill and admits some people may laugh at the idea of the Legislature taking time to clear the records of accused witches. But the descendants are feeling some “serious stuff,” he said, adding that a constituent requested the resolution.
“His wish was that if there was a way to give some kind of a closure to the families, that would be one way for him to be able to say that he has done his share, even though his ancestors may have not done the right thing,” Anwar said.
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Other states and countries have attempted to atone for persecuting people for witchcraft in the past, including Scotland’s prime minister issuing a formal apology last year to the estimated 4,000 Scots who were accused of witchcraft up until 1736. About 2,500 of the 4,000 accused were killed. A Scottish member of parliament called for posthumously pardoning them.
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Massachusetts lawmakers in 2022 formally exonerated Elizabeth Johnson Jr., who was convicted of witchcraft in 1693 and sentenced to death during the Salem Witch Trials. Johnson is believed to be the last accused Salem witch to have her conviction set aside by lawmakers.
And in 2006, former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine gave an informal pardon to Grace Sherwood, a widowed midwife who was accused by neighbors of ruining crops, killing livestock and creating storms before then facing allegations of being a witch. Sherwood was thrown into a river with her hands tied to find out if she floated, which was considered to indicate guilt. She was able to free herself and spent seven years in prison.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.